North or South, the Tories are destroying our public transport

The government is failing northerners on public transport, but southerners are no less doomed. Jenny Jones writes.

I’ve heard a lot from aggrieved northern MPs about the imbalance in the funding of transport infrastructure.

But very few people realise that the government has now cut all revenue funding to Transport for London (TfL).

On the face of it Northern MPs have a good point. With the government expansion of Heathrow, the apparent unfairness will grow massively as billions of pounds of public money is put into upgrading new road and rail links in the South East. Cancelling Heathrow would stop that perceived imbalance getting worse.

I keep saying ‘perceived’ imbalance because although I want more investment in public transport in areas outside of London, the figures I’ve seen in the media ignore a few basic facts.

The biggest missing fact is that Londoners are paying for a lot of this investment out of their own pockets.

Every single Londoner is carrying over a £1,000 of debt which TfL has accumulated since it embarked on the tube upgrades and Crossrail projects back in 2003. That debt is likely to reach over £10bn over the next couple of years and means that 7% of the annual income is used to pay off debt and interest.

The South East of England is densely populated, the roads are congested and that helps make public transport a popular option. It means that the average spend per passenger journey is lower in London than the national average, as there are simply more users. So while the amount spent per rail passenger journey in London was about £6.95, that is well below the UK average of £10.31.

The massive investment by Conservative and Labour Mayors was a big catch-up, after a decade of government neglect, but it was justified financially by the rapid growth in the population of London and the South East.

TfL is run as a democratically controlled business that knows it has to raise the revenue to pay back the debt.There has been a blip in the last two years with falling passenger numbers which could be economic uncertainty, or lifestyle changes, with increase in home delivering and UBER rides.

If this uncertainty over future revenue streams continues then transport investment in London will dry up.

This makes it even more crazy that London is the only major transport authority in the world where the taxpayer doesn’t help to keep the fares down. In fact, it’s worse than that, with bus and train passengers helping to subsidise small scale improvements to the roads that TfL runs. If you’ve heard of the idea of ‘polluter pays’, well this is kind of the opposite.

Of course, vehicles in London do help to pay for a fair amount. TfL gets congestion charge money every year, along with all the fines from people driving in bus lanes, parking on red routes and finding other ways of delaying the majority of people. Councils get residents’ parking money to help maintain the 95% of roads that belong to them. Drivers generally pay more in London, but it is the government who collects and keeps the big money from fuel duty and road tax.

The rail chaos isn’t all about funding. Bringing the trains and tracks back under public control would be a good start, but we need to find a way of funding public transport that doesn’t land the taxpayer with a huge bill and doesn’t mean we fight each other for the fair distribution of inadequate investment.

The solution to transport problems both north and south is to give the elected Mayors the power to introduce road pricing and to use the money raised to help finance investment in public transport.

The Greens on the London Assembly commissioned a report into pay as you go driving in 2011 by Professor John Whitelegg and Phil Jones.

Even seven years ago it was obvious that innovations like the Oyster Card, mobile phone technology and widespread use of GPS made it possible to run a flexible and smart approach to managing congestion on our roads.

It is perfectly possible to design a system that charges more for busy roads and/or polluted roads, so that vehicles have an incentive to avoid those areas if they can.

The academics who wrote the report gave an indicative figure of 20p per kilometre for driving in London. Obviously, this would vary according to different road conditions in other urban areas of the country.

But in London alone, this would have raised £1.4 billion a year and reduced traffic by 10%.

Pay as you go driving would replace the clunky congestion charge area and cover the whole of London. It would target pollution hotspots, free up some of the busier roads and enable the London Mayor to make public transport and cycling even more attractive.

Rather than appealing for more government subsidy, I think that the Metropolitan areas should be making a bid to run their own transport systems, with their own money. Pay as you go driving is the obvious solution to the joint problems of congestion and pollution, which would enable integrated transport authorities to invest and thrive.

To ignore London’s public transport growing funding crisis is to miss an opportunity to reinvent our capital and make it healthier and more affordable for all.

Jenny Jones (Baroness Jones of Moulsecoomb) is a Green Party member of the House of Lords.

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